Real del Monte, Hidalgo
Look on a map of Hidalgo State and you won’t find Real del Monte, despite the fact that it’s a popular weekend destination near Mexico City. Originally a colonial mining town whose mountains of silver enriched the Spanish Crown, its name has since been officially changed to Mineral del Monte, deleting the “Real” and its reference to the royal treasury. Everyone except mapmakers, however, continues to refer to this charismatic hamlet by its original name.
A surprisingly short hop from Hidalgo’s capital, Real del Monte perches in the Sierra de Pachuca, a smaller mountain range that’s part of the Sierra Madre Oriental. At an altitude of 2,680 meters (8,800 feet) above sea level, this is one of the highest inhabited places in Mexico. The weather in winter can be cold, often cloudy or foggy. Occasionally it even snows. But during our trip at the end of the dry season, the sun shone brightly, liberating evergreen aromas from the surrounding forests of pine and cedar.
As in neighboring Huasca, many of the municipality’s 12,000 inhabitants live in the surrounding countryside. Sheep are grazed; orchards provide apples, plums, and pears. Corn, oats, and barley are grown during the rainy summer and fall months. In town, tourism now drives the economy.
Mining Is History; Tourism, the Future
A pretty and well-preserved little village, Real del Monte has been named a “Magic Town.” This designation means cash from the federal government with which to install trash bins and clean up the streets. Graffiti is quickly painted over, and locals are encouraged to open hotels and restaurants.
Facing the curvy streets and lanes, two-story houses of plastered adobe or brick sport a variety of pretty colors---periwinkle blue, pale peach, yellow ochre, brick red---with doors and windows painted in a contrasting cream. Wrought iron balconies overlook the street. Tall colonnades front downtown businesses, providing protection from sun or rain and a venue for local people peddling inexpensive jewelry and souvenirs. Casual restaurants sell pan de pulque (a bread made of pulque, a liquor similar to undistilled tequila), “miner’s enchiladas,” and my personal favorite: flaky pastes (pronounced PAH-stays in Spanish) with a variety of fillings.
But how did traditional Cornish pasties wind up in the mountains of Central Mexico? These yummy turnovers were introduced by homesick British miners in the mid-19th century. Needing a portable and nutritious midday meal, the workers baked the Cornish turnover that was the standard lunch for workers in the copper and tin mines of Cornwall, in southwest England.
The British had taken over the super productive Hidalgo mines during the chaos of the Mexican War for Independence from Spain. During their brief tenure, the Brits introduced not only pasties, but the Methodist religion and the principals of the Industrial Revolution as well as chess, polo, golf, and tennis. Mexico’s favorite team sport---soccer---was introduced by the Cornish miners as well. Pachuca is still one of Mexico’s most popular and successful soccer teams.
Before the Brits, the Spanish made a fortune on mining, exploiting rich veins of silver and other precious and semi-precious metals. After Mexico’s War of Independence, the British took over. Mexican owners took control in the mid-1800s, followed by the Americans, who ran the show for the first half of the 20th century.
The most important mine in the area was Mina de Acosta, which put out for nearly three centuries but is today exclusively an educational and touristic operation. For a small fee, visitors get an underground tour into the bowels of the Acosta Mine. Hard hats are provided, but unfortunately, pastes are not.
But don’t despair! You can find these turnovers in shops all over town. Eat in with a coffee or hot chocolate or carry them out to munch on the go. Traditionally filled with a mixture of potatoes, leeks, and ground beef, the flaky bakery item was reinvented by Mexican matrons who today stuff them with beans, chorizo, chicken in green sauce, and other savory fillings as well as custard, pineapple, or delicious regional fruits. Although there are many places to try this iconic Real del Monte treat, the most popular is Pastes El Portal, where you can often get one fresh from the oven.
Beyond the Paste
Although the pasties were obviously the highlight of my brief visit to Real del Monte, the English graveyard on the southwest side of town is of interest as well. The first grave was dug in 1837; tradition dictates that headstones point toward the British Isles. With luck the groundskeeper will be around to point out noteworthy tombs. If not, it’s still fun to traverse the graveyard---tucked under tall, rangy pines---and read the markers on your own. Look for the burial place of Richard Bell, a headstrong and apparently bitter English clown who asked to be laid out in the opposite direction.
Those interested in the pharmacopeia and medical paraphernalia of the early- to mid-20th century must visit the well-preserved Museo de Medicina Laboral. The former hospital for injured or sick miners now houses a comprehensive display. And there’s a great view of town from the museum’s parking lot.
Facing the main plaza, the most important church in town is dedicated to Nuestra Señora del Rosario (Our Lady of the Rosary). Nearby, the Capilla de Nuestro Señor de Zelontla (also spelled Celontla) is a small chapel dedicated to this patron saint of miners.
You can see the major sites as part of a tour out of Pachuca, but people who enjoy small-town life may want to come on their own to truly savor the town’s charisma. Spend the night here, return to Pachuca, or continue on to Huasca, another Pueblo Mágico just 16 kilometers (10 miles) up the road.
See the Real del Monte Travel Guide for more information, including hotel and restaurant recommendations.